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Reinhold Niebuhr's Impossible Ethical Ideal

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In Reinhold Niebuhr's "The Relevance of an Impossible Ethical Ideal," the author develops many claims regarding the difference of thought between orthodox Christianity and modern secular society. Of these claims, I shall address in this essay how the impossibility of sacrificial love, or agape love, is relevant to our moral lives. As Christians I feel that we are all too often conditioned to see ourselves as pursuing the ideals and beliefs of Christ, yet Niebuhr's explanation offers insight into how mankind is unable to possess true sacrificial love and furthermore how faith and repentance of sin are all that is needed to gain the eternal gift of life in heaven.

In analyzing how sacrificial love is impossible, I found Niebuhr's example on page 243 to be particularly clarifying. "Men may defend the life of the neighbor merely to preserve those processes of mutuality by which their own life is protected. But that only means that they have discovered the Interrelatedness of life through concern for themselves rather than by an analysis of the total situation" (Christian Ethics 243). To me this means that as much as we would like to think we would lay down ourselves for our neighbors, we would only do so if we thought we might profit or gain from the action. Reinhold goes on to claim that "it is natural enough to love one's own family more then other families and no amount of education will ever eliminate the inverse ratio between the potency of love and the breadth and extension in which it is applied" (Christian Ethics 245). This piece of the passage was what ultimately led to my understanding of how Niebuhr could claim that agape love is impossible. Thinking of my own family I would undoubtedly choose my family over anyone or anything were it that I was forced to make a decision. The love which we feel for those who bore and raised us or for that matter lay within our blood line will always be closer to our hearts and minds. As much as we try as Christians to live out our faith by doing as Christ did, we cannot be reasonably expected to forsake our own family in regard for another. It belies the logic for which we have grown accustomed to through our society. Only Christ was able to show complete compassion for all due to the nature of his mission on Earth.

In further developing his claims, Reinhold Niebuhr cites Sigmund Freud's "Civilization and its Discontents," pp. 139-140. Freud's argument was that "the command to love the neighbor as ourselves is the strongest defense there is against human aggressiveness and it is a superlative example of the un-psychological attitude of the cultural superego. The command is impossible to fulfill; such an enormous inflation of the ego can only lower its value and not remedy its evil." I think it is important to note that while Freud states that the commandment is downright unattainable for a culture, I do believe that certain individuals posses what is necessary to show an agape love. Yet while it is possible, very few people in the course of history have been able to develop this kind of love for mankind. But to this argument, Niebuhr states that "the faith which regards the love commandment as a simple possibility rather than an impossible possibility is rooted in a faulty analysis of human nature which fails to understand that though man always stands under infinite possibilities and is potentially related to the totality of existence, he is, nonetheless, and will remain, a creature of finiteness" (Christian Ethics 246). He goes on to state that man "will never be able to divorce his reason from its organic relation with the natural impulse of survival with which nature has endowed him; and he will never be able to escape the sin of accentuating his natural will-to-live into an imperial will-to-power by the very protest which he yearning for the eternal tempts him to make against his finiteness" (Christian Ethics 246).

In addressing how Reinhold Niebuhr's claim is relevant to our everyday lives I feel it is important to understand, as a Christian, that no matter what we try to do or accomplish in terms of our spiritual growth, we will always be sinful human beings. Niebuhr himself offers us this insight in his closing sentence by stating that "repentance is thus the gateway into the Kingdom of God" (Christian Ethics 247). Therefore, even though we cannot hope to ever possess a true sacrificial love for all of humanity; it is a mute issue as it is no more relevant to our salvation than any other supposed ideal of the Christian faith. I know that in my life, I have been faced with situations in which I could have shown a deeper



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